Bridge crossing in Laos

January 11, 2019, by Andrew Wilhelmsen

How Pedalling the Path Less Travelled Helped Me Explore Career Pathways

By Andrew Wilhelmsen, PhD Life Science

After finishing my master’s degree, I had all the career focus of a wayward roaming, itchy-footed vagabond and all the wanderlust of a, well… wayward roaming, itchy-footed … you get the point.

So, I hopped on a plane to Singapore and decided to go on a bike ride, for no other reason than I had nothing better to do. I’d like to tell you that I gained sage wisdom into my life’s purpose, but that would not be entirely true.

While pedalling past the white beaches of Thailand, I received an invitation to apply for a very interesting PhD position at Nottingham – and gained the best tan-lines/mosquito bite combo you’ve ever seen. I wasn’t sure if that was something I wanted, but nevertheless, I wrote an application from my hammock. I Skype interviewed at 2am from a motel at the Cambodia/Laos border in a sweat-drenched shirt and found out I had been offered the position at a gas station in Laos, while following the Mekong River north.

Pedalling through jungle valleys and mountain passes, across salt plains and rice paddies, stringing my hammock between trees and praying for fewer mosquitoes, I fluctuated wildly between relishing and resenting the idea of returning to the UK’s mild climate, rolling hills, and fluoride-rich sanitation, and starting yet another degree. I had hoped, somewhere atop a Chinese mountain surrounded by Buddhist monks in a moment of bliss, to realise what I wanted to do with my career, and whether undertaking a PhD right now was the right choice. That never quite happened.

What I did realise, however, is that uncertainty IS what I want.

On this cycle touring trip, I had no fixed destination. I just woke up and worked each day to overcome whatever challenges I faced, with no two days ever being the same. So too, professionally, I realised that I yearn for dynamic problem solving; stretching and squeezing my brain to think differently; being able to choose what questions I want to ask, and figuring out ways of finding answers to them.

Perhaps, therein lies my career aspiration: simply to go wherever the challenge of the day takes me. I suppose, in all honesty, one reason I accepted the PhD, was because I felt like it would give me more time to figure out what my long-term goals are, in an environment where I can develop not just my scientific skill set, but many other professional and personal attributes.

It was in the spirit of improving my personal sales pitch that I ended up here, as a new writer for the Careers blog. My bicycle ultimately led me to the urban mega-metropolis of Hong Kong, and in a broader sense, towards a doctorate, but I still don’t know where this journey is leading me. And I’m okay with that. I’ll just pull on my cycling shorts and keep pedalling towards that sun-soaked horizon.

If you like, you can tag along for the ride. Every now and again, in between my lab work, I’ll be writing up a post like this. Sharing my experiences of engaging with the events and services offered by the Careers team, and reflecting on my own journey through my doctorate.

If you’re thinking about studying for a PhD, check out the advice on our website and book an appointment with an adviser.

Posted in Choosing Your CareerPhD StudentsStudent Bloggers